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Football: THE REAL McCOY; Giggs: Of course we miss Becks, he's already proved he's the best player at Madrid.

Byline: David MCDONNELL

RYAN GIGGS has paid David Beckham the ultimate tribute by hailing the England skipper "the best player at Real Madrid."

Giggs believes his former Manchester United team-mate has established himself as Real's most important player, less than six months after his pounds 25million switch from Old Trafford.

With Real boasting world-class stars like Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul and Luis Figo, Giggs' claim that Beckham is playing better than all of them is sure to irritate United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

Fergie considered Beckham surplus to requirements in the summer but the 28-year-old midfielder has added a different dimension to his game in La Liga, and United have certainly missed him.

And Giggs admitted the United stars who had grown up and played alongside Beckham for more than a decade were still finding it hard to adjust to life without Goldenballs.

"Becks looks just about Real Madrid's best player at the moment," said Giggs. "And I think he's playing the best football of his career.

"I think every Premiership player wonders how they would fare in the Spanish or Italian Leagues at some point in their career.

"But the amount of European football we play at United now, I don't think you necessarily have to go abroad to prove yourself.

"Seeing what Becks has done in Madrid shows just what can bedone. It's a case of how you react, and I think Becks has always reacted to challenges in a special way. "When he was given the England captaincy, his game went up a a notch. Now he's gone to Madrid, he's playing his best football. I'd like to think if it happened to me, I'd do the same."

Beckham said yesterday: "I am a lot happier now. I've played on the right for England and United for a long time, but this is a change. I have enjoyed playing here immensely.

"If I have become a better player it's because these great players around me have made me step up to another level. Also, the Spanish league is different." Giggs admitted that Beckham's departure did not come as a shock, but he did reveal how strange it was without him.

"The speculation building up to his transfer meant it wasn't a surprise when it actually happened," said Giggs.

"But having played with him for so long, it was a strange feeling when he finally signed for Madrid. It was sad to think he wouldn't be around any more."

But with Beckham no longer at United, and Juan Sebastian Veron now at Chelsea, it means the responsibility for free-kicks now lies with Giggs, something the Welsh winger is relishing.

"It was frustrating but Becks was, and still is, one of the best free-kick takers in the world," said Giggs. "Looking back, though, I think I should maybe have taken a few more, which I'll get to do now."

Giggs, who turns 30 later this month, believes United have a ready-made replacement for him, when he finally leaves Old Trafford, in pounds 12.24m teenage signing Cristian Ronaldo.

"Ronaldo has everything going for him," said Giggs. "He's quick, can go past players, has great balance and can use either foot."

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GIGGS: Tribute; TOP IDOL: Beckham is better than ever at Madrid
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 7, 2003
Words:544
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